The Davos Baukultur Alliance wants to change how our cities are built. Will it work?

Building Together

The Davos Baukultur Alliance wants to change how our cities are built. Will it work?

(Courtesy Davos Declaration 2018)

Since creating the Davos Declaration in 2018, the European Ministers of Culture have working on an initiative to improve the quality of the built environment around the world. Now, they have joined forces with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to form Davos Baukultur Alliance (BA). The effort will seek to promote Baukultur, a German concept that “sees the entire designed living environment as a coherent whole, from existing buildings to contemporary design, from small handcrafted details to buildings and open spaces to large-scale infrastructures, and from the planning process through construction and operation to reuse.”

While these ideals will seem obvious to architects and designers, the WEF will attempt to include the private sector (developers) in conversations about improving the quality of development around the world. The WEF aims to promote an integrative approach that includes artists, architects, real estate professionals, government entities, Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and civil society organizations.

The BA has several goals:

  1. Education. BA will convene conferences with governments, NGOs, and businesses in order to foster education and collaboration.
  2. Policy. BA wants to help Europe to overhaul its building regulations.
  3. Definitions. BA aims to develop clear, actionable standards for high-quality building that can be followed by businesses.
  4. Communication. BA plans to develop incentives and policy that includes input from all sectors, leading to faster buy-in and better results.

The effort “can’t just be conferences. We need to see results that can be replicated,” Martin Oliver, BA chair, told AN. “In seven years, we can look back and say here is what we did. We want places like MIPIM to be talking about this.” (MIPIM is an international property event that takes place every March in Cannes, France.)

Baukultur has eight guiding criteria for high quality building: governance, functionality, environment, economy, diversity, context, sense of place, and beauty. Together, they represent a holistic approach that will consider the social and cultural aspects of building, not only the economic qualities.

“An abstract set of principles could be wishful thinking,” architect Alejandro Aravena said. “There are concrete ways to tackle them all at the same time. If you don’t address them all, you won’t get anything built.”

Aravena, the 2016 winner of the Pritzker Prize, is one of the Alliance’s initial partners form the architecture community. His Half-a-house social housing project provided a home for families who were given a one-time, 10,000-dollar grant. Residents could then choose how to complete the house themselves in the future.

With that project, “we made a solution that is not just a shelter, but also an investment and a tool to overcome poverty,” Aravena said. “We had to prove the market wrong within their own set of constraints.”

MASS Design Group’s Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA) represents another model, where locals were taught about sustainable building techniques. In doing so, MASS contributed to local economic sustainability as well as the quality of buildings, which will last longer than typical NGO-driven design often does.

Martin cites recent examples such as the earthquakes in Turkey that destroyed the homes of millions of people as an example of the need to address building quality. “We need to address the cheap shoe problem,” Martin said. “We have been building and tearing down. We need to stop this cycle.”

“Global corporations are interested in teaching about how quality leads to better business,” Chairman of the German Baukultur Foundation Reiner Nagel said. “These levels of standards are going to influence other companies on the international level.”

Private sector partners include concrete maker Holcim, developers Hines Company, financiers Inverscorp, engineering giant Apup, The Architects’ Council of Europe, and MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab. As an example project, Holcim and the Norman Foster Foundation have developed an affordable housing proposal which will be on view at the Time Space Existence exhibition in Venice.

The first Baukultur Alliance event will take place at the Venice Architecture Biennale on Friday, May 19. Speakers include architects whose work represents the vision of Baukultur: Christian Benimana of MASS Design Group, Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri&Hu, and Aravena, who also curated the Venice Biennale in 2016. (Aravena and the Norman Foster Foundation are not alliance members.) In addition to architects and nearly 30 ministers of culture representing the public sector, there will be business leaders at the event, signaling a change in the audience for Baukultur—and perhaps for architectural discourse in general.

“Cities are shortcuts toward equality,” Aravena said. “When you improve infrastructure and public space, you improve life without touching income. It can help level the field and address inequality.”

Matt Shaw is a New York–based columnist and author of the forthcoming book American Modern: Architecture Community Columbus Indiana.